‘Kritik von Lebensformen’ reviewed by Adrian Wilding

Kritik von Lebensformen

Suhrkamp, Berlin, 2014. 451pp., €20,00 pb
ISBN 9783518295878

Reviewed by Adrian Wilding

About the reviewer

Adrian Wilding is currently a visiting scholar at the Institut für Philosophie, …


How should one characterise so-called Frankfurt School theory today? Whereas the heyday of Frankfurt University’s Institute for Social Research (during the time of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse) saw an explosion of radical and challenging ideas and – despite these thinkers’ occasional pessimism – a lasting commitment to a revolutionary perspective, such descriptions sit uncomfortably with recent Frankfurt School thought. Jürgen Habermas, who took over Horkheimer’s post in 1964, oversaw a decisive shift away from the philosophies and politics of the Frankfurt School’s founders. Axel Honneth, Director of the Institute for Social Research since 2001, has developed in works such as Freedom’s Right an intricate philosophical justification for reform over revolution. His latest book, The Idea of Socialism, fires a broadside at Marxism and defends, amongst other things, Eduard Bernstein’s ‘revisionism’ (Honneth 2015, 63-4). Can one view the shifts which have taken place under Habermas and Honneth as the turn from a Marxist philosophy to a social democratic philosophy? And if this captures something of the trend in Frankfurt, is it irreversible? Will the Institute and ‘Frankfurt School’ thinking continue down the path he and Habermas have lead them or will they take a new turn?

Written under Honneth’s supervision, Rahel Jaeggi’s doctoral thesis, the book Alienation, was noteworthy because it seemed to stem the ‘post-critical’ tide and signal a return to Marx. The concept of alienation was to be ‘resurrected’ as a foundational concept of social philosophy (Jaeggi 2014, xx). But what appeared at first sight as a laudable revival of a key idea turned out to cede extensive ground to Marx’s liberal and postmodern critics. Postmodern scepticism towards ‘essentialism’ and liberal attacks on the possibility of an integrated and authentic life had, Jaeggi argued, ‘rightly called into question’ the assumptions on which Marx’s notion of alienation rested, so that a major ‘transformation’ of its meaning was required (ibid.). Given the credence afforded to these objections it was perhaps unsurprising that the concept of alienation which emerged at the end of Jaeggi’s book was so deflationary and, as she herself admitted, ‘thin’ (ibid., 221), that it now bore little resemblance to Marx’s.

An example from Alienation may illustrate how its approach could lead astray. Famously, one form of alienation attacked by Marx was that embodied in social roles. Jaeggi believes Marx’s critique of social roles to be at root untenable: it presupposes an ‘asocial’, ‘essential’, ‘true’ self from which we are estranged and which we hope to recover (ibid., 107-8). But, Jaeggi argues, social roles are where we realise our identity and individuality; they are unavoidable, a necessary part of human socialisation. Drawing on Goffman’s dramaturgical model and Simmel’s ‘Philosophy of the Actor’, she contends that ‘roles are productive. In and through them we first become ourselves’ (ibid., 105). Accordingly, an unalienated or ‘authentic’ life would consist in ‘certain ways of behaving in roles—that is, in certain ways of shaping what one does in roles and in ‘obstinately’ giving them a meaning of one’s own—rather than in an unspoiled pure or genuine self, understood as something that exists prior to and apart from roles’ (ibid., 181).

What has happened here? An attempt to iron out the ‘fuzzy edges’ (ibid., 31) of the concept of alienation has all but emptied that concept of meaning. A straw man (‘essentialism’) has provided the foil for a quite etiolated and sociological image of unalienated life. Importantly, we have lost the intimate link Marx saw between social roles and the capitalist division of labour, where one ‘is’ a ‘lecturer’ or a ‘student’ or a ‘call-centre operative’ or a ‘barista’ because the market demands so, just as the same market demands specific forms of physical and affective labour to accompany such roles. Likewise missing is the idea Marx drew from Hegel: that in a social role our universality runs against the grain of our particularity, negating and contradicting our potential as self-determining beings. Do such insights really rest on shaky essentialist or asocial grounds, as Jaeggi thinks, and require a deflationary rewriting? Or has too much weight been given to what are actually quite weak objections to Marx? And what exactly is the meaning of Marx’s famous lines from The German Ideology about a life spent hunting, fishing and criticising ‘without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic’ (Marx 1975, 47) if not the contrast between a fixed identity bestowed by the division of labour and a freely circulating range of activities which never define an individual as a this or a that? Jaeggi has a surprising answer to this: even these temporary activities of hunting or fishing are roles, the individual concerned having merely ‘united in her daily life a larger than normal number [of them]’ (Jaeggi 2014, 117). It is hard to see this as anything other than a grave misreading, in which Goffman-style sociology smothers the revolutionary force of Marx’s point.

If Alienation was something of a false dawn, the premise of the present work, Kritik von Lebensformen—her Habilitation, also written under Axel Honneth’s supervision—is more auspicious. This latest book of Jaeggi’s is directed against a widespread relativism which maintains we are in no position to criticise particular cultures or societies or ways of life (her term Lebensformen refers to all of these). On the contrary, Jaeggi wants to argue, we can dispute the merits (even the rationality) of forms of life and do so with good reasons. There are solid grounds for social critique.

To show this she begins by questioning the liberal enshrinement of the ‘right’ over the ‘good’ and liberalism’s self-image as impartial with regard to competing moral visions. It is a point already implicit in Hegel and Marx but Jaeggi restates it well, that liberalism’s professed parsimony, its ‘ethical abstinence’ (31), is highly hypocritical: in liberalism a ‘form of life’ has already been chosen; for all its supposed impartiality a liberal society has already plumped for a particular vision of the good life (38-40). That forms of life are ‘unquestionable’ or ‘ineluctable’ (unhintergehbar) is itself a presupposition of a form of life that liberal societies have made invisible and ‘hegemonic’ (56).

Let us admit that we are all (even liberals) committed to certain visions of the good life. By what criteria are we to judge which one is ‘right’? It is in answering this that Jaeggi’s book becomes controversial. She treats the question as a procedural one: each form of life, that is, each society or culture or social institution or economic formation (each ‘ensemble of social practices’, as she summarises a Lebensform) is an attempt at problem-solving (58-9). The virtue of this definition, she believes, is that forms of life can be assessed on the basis of their ‘success’ or ‘failure’, may be judged ‘deficient’ or ‘successful’ on a basis which is not ‘paternalistic’ (14).

Does this definition suffice to allow comparison, judgement, critique? Obvious objections arise. If the ‘problems’ to be solved are specific to each life-form, to what degree can we meaningfully compare success or failure in solving them? Might the nature of the ‘problems’ themselves be a matter of interpretation? Jaeggi admits as much (214-5) but might the issue be more complex still? Let us agree that one can treat societies or economies as exercises in problem-solving; how should we judge, for instance, the capitalist societies which dominate our globe? If, say, the success of an economic formation consists in meeting the needs of a population they would surely fail miserably. If however they are premised on placing wealth in the hands of the 1% then they prove remarkably effective. The example shows that function alone does not elude relativity and that not only ‘interpretation’ but deeper notions of social appearance and essence must be called upon.

Sensing some of the difficulties with functionalism, Jaeggi tries a different tack: problem-solving is as much about norms as functions and we can measure the success or failure of a form of life in solving the ‘normative conflicts’ it encounters (227-8). One obvious example of ‘normative failure’ is the capitalist labour market, which she discusses via Hegel’s image (in The Philosophy of Right) of civil society as ‘ethical life split into its extremes and lost’ (235-240). The discussion is interesting but a reader may wonder why she focuses analysis of capitalism on those social problems Hegel glimpsed – unemployment, poverty, stultifying work – rather than on those Marx later saw as their root cause – exploitation. Is it because exploitation (the extraction of surplus value) isn’t a straightforwardly ‘normative’ category (cf. Jaeggi 2016)? The result is that here she can only present capitalism’s normative failure as a failure to live up to its own standards: in their ideal-type the principles set out by Adam Smith, of matching a diversity of human needs (235).

The book’s strongest part is also its most radical. Part 3 outlines a useful set of distinctions between ‘transcendent critique’, ‘internal critique’ and ‘immanent critique’. Whereas the standards applied in transcendent critique are external and risk being paternalistic or even ‘violent’ (269), internal critique measures the consistency of a form of life with its own normative standards, an approach which can lack critical distance and risks becoming ‘conservative’ (273). Immanent critique, Jaeggi’s chosen approach, combines immersion in, and transcendence of, a form of life; it finds deep-seated and systematic contradictions between norm and practice that point to their emancipatory transformation. It is ‘the ferment of a transformation process’ (301). This is certainly a helpful framework and merits wider debate, but its appearance so late in the book is confusing. Not the least confusion arises from the fact that the Hegel-inspired discussion of the capitalist labour market mentioned above (235-40) seems a prime example of the ‘internal’ (as opposed to ‘immanent’) critique she later decries (263).

The book ends by returning to the idea of problem-solving as a measure of life-forms’ success, redefining the issue now as one of success or failure in a ‘rational learning process’ (319). Societies learn from their mistakes by bringing increasingly rational solutions to the table and, in doing so, ‘progress’ (316). A form of life can be judged ‘rational’ to the degree that it successfully deals with a variety of problems and its members ‘learn’ from so doing. Importantly, measuring a life-form’s rationality is not about the ‘what’ (the content) of a good life but a question of ‘how’ (the process by which this rationality was achieved). In terms of immanent critique, a successful life-form is ‘one that can be understood as the result of a successful transformation dynamic’ (314). But something here is surely question-begging, the definitions of ‘rationality’ and ‘learning’ resting on the very definitions of ‘problems’ and ‘problem-solving’ that she admits to be ‘interpretable’. Does this circularity stem from having sought merely formal criteria for judging societies in the belief that any content would impose too transcendent and paternalistic a standard? Whatever the reason, it is a disappointingly agnostic conclusion to a book which seemed to promise more. There are echoes of the deflationary end of Alienation.

Has Jaeggi provided a sound basis for social critique? I suggest difficulties with her notions of function, problem-solving, and rational learning processes give cause for doubt. Might some other basis be more solid? Can we be more than agnostic about the ‘good life’ and give it not just form but content? I propose we can, though it is possible to sketch this here in only the briefest terms. A form and content for the ‘good life’ is to be found in the notion of mutual recognition (see Gunn and Wilding 2013a). The notion of recognition, however, must first be freed from the sense Honneth has given it and returned to its original Hegelian meaning. If one distinguishes, as Hegel does, between contradictory and non-contradictory (or ‘mutual’) recognition, one finds, I contend, a criterion by which we can assess diverse forms of life against a more than merely procedural standard. Might it be that the ‘normative crises’ (228) Jaeggi refers to and which drive forms of life forward, sometimes in revolutionary ways, are actually so many human attempts to overcome contradictory recognition and achieve mutual recognition? Recognition understood in this radical sense can be robust and generalizable but also immanent and non-paternalistic: it is the dynamic stuff of social relations themselves. Crucially, it reaches beyond the political horizons of recent Frankfurt School thinking and reclaims critical theory’s revolutionary roots. To take just one example, on such a model the supposedly ‘inescapable’ social roles defended by Jaeggi in Alienation would actually be instances of contradictory recognition to be overcome: where I recognise you as merely a this or a that, terms dictated by the division of labour, I recognise you in a contradictory way, a way that negates your self-determination. Not the least virtue of such a radical notion of recognition is that it allows us to envisage – and even begin to create – forms of unalienated post-capitalist life.

There is certainly a need for a book which questions the cultural-relativist credo and exposes the partisanship of liberal impartiality. Jaeggi’s distinction between immanent and merely internal critique also helps pinpoint the problem with Honneth’s method of ‘normative reconstruction’. In these respects Kritik von Lebensformen is rewarding. However, the book’s proceduralist approach is a battleground where a liberal opponent will feel confident and where the cultural relativist will prove difficult to silence. As with Alienation, a reader is left thinking there must be politically more daring ways to approach the subject matter.

Does the present work help reverse the tide and recover the aims of critical theory? Though hopeful signs appear at several points in Kritik, much here reflects the new orthodoxy in Frankfurt. There the negative and critical has been largely abandoned for the affirmative and methodological, focus may return to Hegel or Marx, but only to blunt their ideas, and the vocabulary of liberal political philosophy has won out over the rich Hegelian-Marxist thought-world in which the early Frankfurt School moved. Despite their difficulty, a book by Adorno or Marcuse could inspire a generation of political activists; it is hard to see the work of their successors having a similar effect (cf. Gunn and Wilding 2013b). A real revival of critical theory, one that points beyond the conceptual parameters and the piecemeal reform of the capitalist order, is overdue.

13 February 2016


  • Gunn, R. & Wilding, A. 2013a Revolutionary or Less-than-Revolutionary Recognition? Heathwood Press http://www.heathwoodpress.com/revolutionary-less-than-revolutionary-recognition/
  • Gunn, R. & Wilding, A. 2013b Is the Frankfurt School Still Relevant? Heathwood Press http://www.heathwoodpress.com/is-the-frankfurt-school-still-relevant/
  • Honneth, A. 2015 Die Idee des Sozialismus: Versuch einer Aktualisierung (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp)
  • Jaeggi, R. 2014 Alienation trans. Frederick Neuhouser and Alan E. Smith (New York: Columbia University Press).
  • Jaeggi, R. 2016 What (if Anything) is Wrong with Capitalism? Academia.edu https://www.academia.edu/21200249/What_if_Anything_Is_Wrong_with_Capitalism_Dysfunctionality_Exploitation_and_Alienation_Three_Approaches_to_the_Critique_of_Capitalism1
  • Marx, K. and Engels, F. Collected Works Volume 5 (London: Lawrence and Wishart 1975)


  1. A very good review, right to the point about the Frankfurt school theory of today. However, just for the record: Habermas has never been leader of the Institute in Frankfurt and he did not succeed Horkheimer at the Institute in 1964. Actually, it was Adorno. What Habermas took over in 1964 was Horkheimers professorship at the University of Frankfurt (something the latter wasn’t to happy about).

  2. Thank you for this, but I didn’t say Habermas had been leader of the Institute (I chose my words deliberately to allude to leading figures in the ‘School’ who I know had different academic positions.

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